In the final seconds before Sunday’s Seville derby, the drone camera rose above the Sánchez Pizjuán, an expanse of empty red seats stretched across the screen and, if you looked carefully, you could just about make out a solitary figure scurrying past the stadium in the shadow of the main stand. On the pitch, Sevilla Fútbol Club and Real Betis Balompié were about to start the one hundredth derby in primera, a Champions League place in play, but all was silent and in the stands there was no one there to see it, which doesn’t matter any less just because everyone knows that already and has done for too long. Empty grounds are not only something it’s hard to get used to; they’re something you shouldn’t get used to. Hopefully that won’t be necessary much longer, the secretary of state for sport Irene Lozano saying that maybe supporters can return after Easter.

Not before time as Sunday showed. The Seville derby is often seen as Spain’s best and it’s not because of brilliant players, although there have been plenty of them; it’s because of the people, absent now for a year. The last La Liga goal scored in front of fans was in Seville, Betis’s Cristián Tello getting a late winner against Real Madrid in March 2020 that saw 51,521 people go bananas. The following week should have concluded with the derby but the country went into lockdown and Sevilla versus Betis instead became the first game played when football finally returned almost a hundred days later. There was no one in the stands when Sevilla won 2-0 that Friday night in mid-June or anywhere else that weekend, some destined never to return. And there still wasn’t this Sunday when they met again at the Pizjuán a year and a day since the state of emergency was declared, a symbol of everything football has missed.

In January Betis and Sevilla had drawn 1-1 at the Benito Villamarín, the start of a run in which Manuel Pellegrini’s improving team went on to lose just once in nine games, climbing to within touching distance of their rivals. Now, just as Sevilla’s season looked like it might slip from them even though it had started so well – out of the cup and out of Europe too – Julen Lopetegui’s team stepped away from Betis again, winning 1-0 to tighten their loosening grip on fourth.

The game was decided by a first-half goal from top scorer Youssef En Nesyri. And that was just about that, or so it goes.

At times, it had threatened to become entertaining with the first foul taking just eighteen seconds to turn up and Betis pressing high. There was an early penalty shout for a challenge from Bono on Sergio Canales. Borja Iglesias almost scored an accidental equaliser, a fluke rebound having to be cleared off the line. And with the last kick, Nabil Fekir bent a shot just past the post, a collective intake of breath swiftly replaced by shouts of relief and celebration. This was big and oh they celebrated, Óliver Torres summing it up with a “Sevilla fucking football club.”

But at the end of a weekend illuminated only by Karim Benzema’s brilliant late winner for Real Madrid against Elche and Gerard Moreno’s hat-trick of classy assists for Villarreal at Eibar, one in which nine of the 18 teams that played didn’t score and seven scored only once, in truth there wasn’t very much more. The derby was unable to fully redeem what came before, El Mundo insisting that “in the absence of magic, all that was left was metal studs and tepid balls into the box,” while Diario De Sevilla’s match reporter shared the entire contents of his notebook, which was mostly empty, apologetically offering “that’s all, folks”. And when it was all over, Sergio Canales shrugged: “they beat us with very little.”

En-Nesyri rounds the keeper and comes up with a fantastic finish from an acute angle! 🔥 Sevilla lead in the derby ⚪🔴

It is just one game, or is it? Is it in fact a recurring theme, the Seville derby as a suitable symbol of the whole thing, the game that most depends on supporters for meaning? Sometimes when the whistle goes this season it is hard to avoid a simple question: is that it? No, it shouldn’t be exaggerated. And yes, there have been bad games before and good games this season, moments of joy and tension, triumphs and heroism. God knows, there have been terrible derbies in the past, lost in all the noise. And yet sometimes the absence of the fans – the absence of the emotion which is pretty much the point – seem like they go hand in hand.

Maybe it’s just us, not them. It is easy to be impressionable and easy to be simply wrong. The figures might show something different entirely. And short-termism often takes over: next weekend it might feel different, just as last weekend it probably did. Maybe there are no more dull draws now than there ever were before, no more uneventful wins that are never going to be overturned; maybe it’s no easier to hold a lead than it was even if it does look that way. Maybe it’s not actually any slower. Maybe the absence of fans makes the football feel bad, rather than actually making it bad. But it does something.

There’s a tangible impact, rational reasons. According to La Liga, the pandemic will have cost Spanish clubs €2bn by the end of this season. In the summer, more money was spent by clubs in the Premier League, Serie A and even Ligue 1, in the winter window, the gap was wider, and the league’s president Javier Tebas says he can’t see big signings this summer, predicting that it will be three markets before there is a recovery. Measures to protect themselves involve sales and salary cuts, almost €800m in loans, and budgets being cut by a combined €984m (although that may not be all bad: it may have given us Pedri for example and without Covid Ángel Jiménez wouldn’t have become the youngest ever debutant for Granada, marking the moment by saving a penalty.

The fixture list has become compressed too, the recovery times reduced. There have been more injuries than ever before. It is a minor miracle that Granada are still standing let alone winning, and up to eighth. Their coach, Diego Martínez says the only time he has felt flat was after he had Covid. Madrid have had over 40 injuries. At the end of the derby on Sunday, Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan was asked about the team’s performance. “We needed that,” he said. “It’s been hard. We had only 15 days’ break, played two years at a good level. There’s fatigue. And I say that now that we have won because if I said it when we lost it would sound like an excuse. I hope we can have fans back soon, so we can enjoy this derby with them again.”

At times this season has felt like something for teams to get through. The enthusiasm wanes like the energy does, some of the essence of the game taken from them. They turn up in their kits and leave in them too, only briefly occupying makeshift dressing rooms: an office, a tent, a corridor. At Villarreal the away teams gather in an adapted storeroom under one end of the ground, leaving it to walk along the touchline and head down the tunnel at the side for one reason only – to be able to come out of it again for the cameras. Maybe there’s something in that, a metaphor? It all feels a bit … well, made up. Not really real. At every stadium bombastic PA systems announce the teams to no one in particular, some occasionally play chants or applause at corners. Sometimes there are light shows. The cameras erected in the stand are named the Fan Cam. But it’s empty.

Osasuna manager Jagoba Arrasate says it may be simplistic but insists that playing in empty stadiums has affected the way that his team plays. It’s not chance, he says, that they haven’t staged a single comeback this season, while the stats show they are less intense, less aggressive than they were. Theirs was a style built on an explicit, conscious communion with the fans, so perhaps he would say that, but it is something others suggest too.

“It’s more boring; there’s less energy, less tension, less strength; it’s calmer, more mental, more tactical,” Real Sociedad midfielder Mikel Merino says. “Football is not the same without fans,” you lose so much,” says Nacho Monreal. “It’s horrible playing without fans. It’s a very ugly feeling; it’s much harder to get into the game and that’s why you see very close games. The pandemic has changed football, and for the worse,” Lionel Messi says.

“Football without fans is shit,” says the Betis captain Joaquín. “It’s so different. It’s sad, very sad. Football’s not this. Football without fans, without the people singing, supporting you, whistling, the people who say things to you … that’s football.”

When the final whistle went on Sunday night, Joaquín turned and embraced Jesús Navas. Two symbols, youth teamers who became captain, it is 16 years since Navas appeared in his first Seville derby, twenty since Joaquín did. Thirty-five and 39 respectively, they had just played their 20th first division derby. No one has ever played more, and with just two and a half months left on their contracts, they might not either. Both though are going strong and neither wants to end it yet, and still less like this, walking towards the touchline together in silence where should have been a standing ovation.

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